Abstracted from the weekly edition of Screen International

The warm-up for the race for the Oscars began this week as two UK prestige pictures - Iris and Charlotte Gray - received official US release slots in December, joining what is fast becoming one of the most competitive seasons in years.

On Dec 28 alone - the final week for qualification - seven movies will open, all loaded with tried-and-tested acting, writing and directing talent, and preceded by a mounting 'buzz' - that all-important commodity which builds a picture's prospects to must-see status. And if that must-see infects the 6,000 or so members of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Oscar nominations are often not far behind.

Those seven films are: Charlotte Gray, directed by Gillian Armstrong (Warner Bros); Jan Sverak's Dark Blue World (Sony Classics); Robert Altman's Gosford Park (USA Films); Jessie Nelson's I Am Sam (New Line); Marc Forster's Monster's Ball (Lions Gate); Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (Buena Vista); and Lasse Hallstrom's The Shipping News (Miramax).

Actors in the seven movies include previous Oscar winners Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Billy Bob Thornton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston and Maggie Smith, not to mention plenty of nominees - Sean Penn, Julianne Moore, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cate Blanchett, Laura Dern and Helen Mirren.

Choices for awards contenders among films already released are slim. By this time last year, there had already been two films that would go on to be key winners - Erin Brockovich and Gladiator. Of the summer studio movies, only Fox's Moulin Rouge and DreamWorks SKG's Shrek generated any significant excitement, although the latter will probably be dispatched to the new animated feature category. Some specialised films - Memento, Sexy Beast, The Deep End, Ghost World - caused a stir, and Dimension Films' horror movie The Others won plaudits, especially for star Nicole Kidman.

Pre-Thanksgiving releases Training Day, Hearts In Atlantis, Life As A House and Heist have been well received but might lack aggressive critical support. Meanwhile, Los Angeles publicists, the Academy as well as the critics' associations, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (which votes on the Golden Globes) and the British Academy Of Film and Television Arts (Bafta), are already putting their spin on what films are getting the most buzz.

For example, Miramax Films' French mega-hit Amelie is creating the same kind of adoring fan base as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did last year. Like Ang Lee's film, it was voted audience favourite at the Toronto Film Festival. And, like that film, it will open on a limited basis in early November. With such keen word-of-mouth, Miramax will be pushing the film in other categories outside foreign-language film. That will inevitably include best director for Jean-Pierre Jeunet and actress for Audrey Tatou.

Miramax is also occupied with Sundance prize-winner In The Bedroom (Nov 23), Leon Ichaso's Pinero (Dec 7) and Richard Eyre's Iris, which sees Academy favourites Kate Winslet and Judi Dench play Iris Murdoch at different times of her life. There are also the company's two biggest pictures - Martin Scorsese's epic Gangs Of New York (Dec 21), which is said to feature a knockout return to the screen by Daniel Day-Lewis and The Shipping News, which could mark the third consecutive year for a Hallstrom-directed picture to win a best picture nomination.

One film to suffer in Miramax's wealth of candidates is Heaven, Tom Tykwer's first English-language film, also starring Cate Blanchett, which had been scheduled to open on Dec 7. That has now been moved to March 15 next year. Blanchett still has four other films in, one of which must surely reap awards benefits - she has leading roles in Bandits (Oct 12) and Charlotte Gray, and key supporting roles in The Shipping News and The Fellowship Of The Ring (Dec 19).

New Line is confidently promoting The Fellowship Of The Ring as an awards candidate. The film will world premiere in London in December. New Line is also confident of securing a best actor nomination for Sean Penn - it would be his third - for I Am Sam, in which he plays a disabled man with the mental capacity of a seven-year-old.

Meanwhile, other studios are preparing their high-profile prestige pictures: Columbia will open its $100m Muhammad Ali biopic Ali from director Michael Mann on Dec 7; Warner Bros is hot on Frank Darabont's new film The Majestic, starring Jim Carrey, for Dec 21; Universal is banking on its Ron Howard-directed bio of bisexual schizophrenic mathematical genius John Forbes Nash Jr, A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe; and Paramount has high hopes for Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, a reworking of Spanish hit Abre Los Ojos, with a cast headed by Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz.

Still to be confirmed, but likely to see a late December opening, is one of the highest-profile of them all - the second film from American Beauty director Sam Mendes, The Road To Perdition. Starring Tom Hanks, Alfred Molina, Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law, the 1930s Depression-set gangster tale could well be slotted in before the end of the year if rumours in Hollywood are to be believed. DreamWorks has domestic rights, 20th Century Fox has international.